From the Novice Boat: Zen and the Art of Rowing

Photo: Carla Jordan
Novice crew at dawn | photo: Carla Jordan

Recently, Coach said: “There is a culture in rowing that you will see as you advance — the culture of just shut up and row.” In this world of multitasking, always being online, and not being able to escape the me-me-me-ness of social media, “shut up and row” is a key reason I arrive at 5:30 or 6:00 am three days a week. I am there to do my best at one thing — row, strong and in sync.

I do have to do other stuff. The first week I learned to carry oars down to the dock — properly, fill gas cans and hook them up to the coach’s launch, flush seawater out of the launch motor, carry the shell and lower it into the water, adjust my oar height without dropping the clips in the water, and adjust my foot stretchers. There is more to learn; last week I helped “rig” the boat — attach the oar riggers to the shell.

The thing I am there to do — shut up and row — is amazingly freeing. It’s not my job to tell others how to row; that’s the coach’s job. It’s not my job to tell others what to do next; that’s the cox’s job. When I embody the person who is responsible for her stroke and nothing else, we row better as a team.

My job is to mirror the person in front of me, watch her neck, swing when she swings, drop my oar into the water when she does, feather when she does, slide up at the same pace she does, and push like hell through my legs using my core when she does. Focusing on that is some of the hardest work I have ever done, but frees me. I row best when I focus on nothing else. My stroke is wonky but if I am mindful of just the pieces of my stroke and don’t fret its wonkiness, it gets better faster. My car key flies into the water and I curse but because I have to row I quickly accept it’s gone.

That is what is freeing – row the best you can with each stroke and never give up making the next stroke better no matter what is happening, no matter what is going on around you. Next stroke is the most important stroke.

Sometimes the sky turns pink at sunrise. Or two oystercatchers fly over us. Or a seal pops his head up. Or a flock of egrets watch us pass. If I have successfully embodied shut up and row, even if I didn’t row my best, those moments fill me with awe and I go about my day feeling peaceful and strong.

– Louise Francis (January 2015 novice)